Why Punish Drug Users at All? (NYT article)

Today’s society is gripped by the conservation notion of ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ as a construct that has emerged to empower authority and enact regulations that ultimately endorse a given form of punishment. How did we get here? The perception of punishment from a philosophical perspective, provoked the medieval and early philosophers to assess well-known theories as well as validate tabled reasoning arguments associated with the sensitive topic. In the modern day, punishment, although a retributive act has emerged to be a validated and endorsed aspect that ensures the society functions within the acceptable norms. An analysis on the concept of punishment, through the examination of Gutting and Husak’s publication, will attempt to answer the question, is punishment effective?

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Article Summary

The New York Times article was as an intriguing reading expounded on the ongoing legislation bills within the Congress that were vouching for a reduced sentence especially for violation of crimes that were associated with drug laws. Douglas Husak who was the interviewee in the segmented backed up the move reaffirming that in today’s era it is quite hypocritical to criminalize the recreational use of drugs. Punishment as an element was crafted to primarily deter the reoccurrence of bad habits, as such when punishing people for engaging in drugs; the government should also consider, illegalizing overeating failing to exercise and the indulgence in smoking as they emerge to be undesirable habits (Gutting and Husak 1). It is vital to note that for most crimes to be considered punishable, there has to be an element of “harm to others.” For instance, robbery, murder, or rape. However, in the drug scenario, it is vital to realize that people who use drugs only harm themselves but not people around them, an aspect that makes it hideous to punish people who engage in acts that are self-inflicting. To conclude, it is vital to note that punishing the recreational use of drugs will never be effective in curtailing the deterrence of drug abuse, because most of the drug users who engage in the acts within their private confines believe that they will never be captured, an aspect that is unfortunately right (Gutting and Husak 1).


The punishment on drug users, contravenes the confines of punishment, and provokes the need to inquire is punishment effective? According to Getrude Ezorskly, a philosophy Professor at Brooklyn College, “the punishment element was crafted to be a painful infliction,” an aspect that would require justification (Ezorsky 35). In the drug use scenario, the painful infliction of punishment by the law has emerged to be a process that requires justification. Unfortunately, the aspect of provoking justification is an element that denotes that punishment of drug users is not ethically appealing within the philosophical realm of justified actions.

From a theoretical perspective, one of the main purposes (justification) why people should be punished is to nurture deterrence of the acts (Henham 43). However, when analyzing the form of punishment issued to drug users, such as incarceration, or mandatory sentencing, the primary question that emerges is are the current sanctions applied to reduce drug use effective in curbing the vice. It is essential to note that Punishment can only be considered as effective, when it imposes a deterrence effect on the people, one that nurtures fear from the imposition of punishment, thereby cultivating conformity (Zaibert 48). This aspect denotes that the deterrence value of any form of punishment during its execution or implementation should be directly related to the traits that define the punishment.

When applying the concept of deterrence to the drug scenario, it is vital to realize that effective deterrence only occurs when the human behavior conceptualization is provoked to freely choose on possible alternatives to the identified course of action, as an approach to maximize pleasure and reduce pain (Wringe 686). From an application perspective, it is disheartening to note that most of the punishment alternatives offered to drug use have been ineffective in provoking the users of drugs to maximize pleasure and reduce pain. This aspect when assessed does actualize the fact that incarceration of drug users is uncalled for manner of punishment, one that is ineffective and has emerged to be a problematic approach to solve the ever-growing drug use behavioral trend.

Personal Reflection

When analyzing the punishment of drug users from a personal perspective, it is vital to note that I do support the curtailment of the government-induced form of penalties such as incarceration, as a practical approach to curb the vice. Individually, I perceive the truth to be that punishment, especially in a justified scenario can be effective in deterring others from partaking in the act, as well as reforming the individual who has perpetrated the act. Unfortunately, the government act of justifying its punishment approach to drug use does assert the questionability motive of deterrence act, an aspect that in my view appears to be ineffective in curbing the vice (Ezorsky 35). It is vital to note that drug use is prevalent in confined spaces such as private homesteads, an aspect that implies that a majority of drug users will continue indulging in the habit without the fear of any repercussion.

From a philosophical perspective, most of the medieval philosophers were quick to point out that it is appropriate and recommended to criticize the justification of punishment measures applied to the law’s perception of punitive acts. Drawing from this context of thought, it becomes evident that the incarceration sentence for drug users is indeed brutal, excessive, and undeserved. From a justification point of view, the punishment should be crafted to meet a position of neutrality (Zaibert 74), however in the case, if drug user, most of the penalties handed out are biased as they often devolve away from the aspect of neutrality and being pragmatic only to end up marginalizing the individual. In today’s era, punishment has shifted from being an effective way to nurture change, culminating in the manifestation of a burdensome context that solely focuses on depriving the accused of their rights (Wringe 700). Case in point, the incarceration of drug users, burdens them and robs them of their liberty rights, but little desire to change is achieved.

In conclusion, the punishment of drug users should be reduced to lighter contexts as per the article and furthermore those contexts should be crafted in a manner that would achieve the deterrence effect because it is only through the transformation that real change can be realized. Additionally, when crafting the punishment, it is justified to consider that most drug users solely impose the impact of substance abuse on themselves primarily, hence it is vital for the punishment to concentrate on rehabilitating them rather than condemning them for their actions.


Work Cited

Ezorsky, Gertrude, ed. Philosophical perspectives on punishment. Suny Press, 2015.

Gutting, Gary, and Douglas Husak. “Why Punish Drug Users At All?.” Opinionator. N.p., 2015. Web. 11 Oct. 2018.

Henham, Ralph. Punishment and Process in International Criminal Trials. Routledge, 2017.

Lee, Ambrose YK. “An expressive theory of punishment.” The Philosophical Quarterly 67.267 (2017): 418-421. (Lee)

Wringe, Bill. “Rethinking expressive theories of punishment: why denunciation is a better bet than communication or pure expression.” Philosophical Studies 174.3 (2017): 681-708.

Zaibert, Leo. Punishment and retribution. Routledge, 2016.